Cassils is lit on fire during their performance Inextinguishable Fire, performed on Nov 8, 2015 at the National Theatre in London as part of SPILL Festival of Performance. Photo credit: Cassils with Guido Mencari © Cassils 2015 Image courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts

Laura Hyunjhee Kim, (Modern) Formations II, 2016

Adrián Regnier Chávez, I. (video still), 2014. Single-channel video with experimental animation, 07:39 minutes. Original composition and sound design by Pablo Mariña Montalvo. Courtesy the artist.

Sanaz Mazinani, Threshold (video still), 2015. Single-channel video with 6-channel audio, 04:45 minutes. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Bulger Gallery.

Digital Aura

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
May 20 – August 6, 2017

Arts + Literature Laboratory
May 5 – July 29, 2017

A group exhibition on the political aesthetics of infinite reproduction.

In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), Walter Benjamin describes the concept of aura—an aesthetic experience in which one is confronted with an artwork’s “unique existence at the place it happens to be,” as well as the “unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.” In other words, aura exists as both ontological question and intersubjective experience; a feeling of presence and an attitude of artistic reverence.

According to Benjamin, the singular authenticity of an original work of art collapses when it is mechanically reproduced, along with its aura. At the same time, this loss opens up new possibilities for reproducible media—in his time, photography and film—to democratize the viewing experience and engender political emancipation through the dissemination of revolutionary artistic content.

Over the last half-century, technological developments introduced the possibility of infinite reproduction, raising new and urgent questions about the state of the “original” artwork. Because digital media can be copied with no generation loss, the so-called original is instantiated with each new version. In other words, originality now exists in plurality, like views of the same world through a series of windows. Furthermore, the rise of networked communication and internet culture have positioned these originals in a new kind of public sphere—or public screen—where civil discourse occurs instantaneously on a global scale, with the possibility for technologically-enabled progress (or regress) exponentially increased.

Digital Aura presents works by four artists whose innovations in digital media challenge Benjamin’s assertion that auratic experience and political cinema are mutually exclusive. Through a combination of sublime imagery, ambient sound, and existential thematic material, each work evokes a sense of ritualistic awe while engaging in important dialogues of social concern.

Laura Hyunjhee Kim’s (Modern) Formations II (2016) takes a meditative approach to visualizing the “absurd beauty” of screen-filtered life through a humorous indictment of Western cultural appropriation. Kim depicts a veiled figure, at once mystic and millennial, engaged in feigned yogic practice while maintaining a transfixed clutch on what appears to be a smartphone. Replicated and arrayed in V formation around a cairn-like stone structure, the five figures’ slow, synchronous movements recall Benjamin’s warning of the ritualist’s corruptibility: are these the flight patterns of migratory birds, or the machinations of military aircraft? Their iridescent, contemporary garb reflects materialist aspects of a trending New Age mysticism that commodifies and misappropriates indigenous practices. Clearly, there is no transcendence to be found here, as narcissistic worship of technologies sourced from rare earth minerals negates any real enlightenment. As an observer of this strange ritual, spellbound by its intimate oscillations, the viewer becomes complicit in enduring legacies of colonialism.

In Adrián Regnier Chávez’s I. (2014), feelings of existential awe emerge from the belittling, yet uncannily relaxing experience of nuclear apocalypse from a cosmic perspective. Narrated and subtitled in English by various android characters, and bracketed by passages in Russian, the experimental animation work calls to mind Cold War-era nuclear escalation as well as contemporary geopolitical realities. Thematic sections progress chromatically from green, to yellow, orange, and red, possibly in reference to the Homeland Security Advisory System’s color-coded threat levels (2002-2011), which indicated the likelihood and gravity of a potential terrorist attack. A final section, black, asks bleakly, “Didn’t we rejoice in hope and reason?...Then, why can we still feel it burn?” Indeed, this paradox of technological progress, and its potential for self-destruction, is foreshadowed in the epilogue of Benjamin’s essay, which describes how “fascism renders politics aesthetic”—a process whose logical conclusion is “humankind’s own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure.”

A microcosm of this phenomenon is embodied in Cassils’ Inextinguishable Fire (2007-15), a performance for camera in which the artist attempts a Hollywood stunt known as a full body burn. Filmed at 1000 frames-per-second and rendered in extreme slow motion, the fourteen-second burn is extended to fourteen minutes of exquisite agony. A slow, outward zoom centers on Cassils’ expressionless gaze, reminding us of Benjamin’s observation that “with the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended” and that even in reproduction, aura survives “in the fleeting expression of a human face.” Though popularized by Benjamin, scholars have traced back the concept of aura to an alchemical text from the late Northern Renaissance, Splendor Solis (1532–1535), which introduces aura as the splendor of Becoming. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cassils’ work. At once indexing the seraph, the burning cross, self-immolation, and the phoenix, Inextinguishable Fire forms an ongoing gesture towards ritualistic cycles of trauma, resistance, and renewal in the face of oppressive forces.

The specter of violence conjured by Cassils, and imagined by Chavez, makes a fractured apparition in Sanaz Mazinani’s Threshold (2015)—an audiovisual installation that aestheticizes present-day realities of life inside a war zone. Explosion scenes appropriated from eleven Hollywood films are kaleidoscopically abstracted in reference to traditional Islamic geometries. Inspired by visits to the artist’s home country of Iran, the fiery, shifting tessellations form a hypnotic meditation on the violence of war, and the problematics of romanticizing such violence in the entertainment industry. The incessant static of an accompanying six-channel sound composition mirrors the craquelure of Threshold’s visuals and evokes the dull rumblings of far-off explosions. Altogether, the installation reminds us that images of violence, whether mediated via news bulletin or cinematic spectacle, are fragmented and incomplete pieces of a whole. There is a radical incomprehensibility to understanding trauma from positions of privileged distance—however close it may seem.

By engaging with Benjamin’s aura—a notion hovering on the margins of art, philosophy, and the history of religion—artists in this exhibition demonstrate the capacity for digital works to provoke authentic, auratic experience. At the same time, they defy the author's original dilemma by embracing the democratizing and socially transformative potential of infinite reproduction. Through their construction of a digital aura, they participate in a vital, ongoing dialogue on how globalized society understands and assigns value in the digital age.

– Simone Doing and Max Puchalsky, 2017


Laura Hyunjhee Kim (Seoul, South Korea)

Cassils (Los Angeles, USA)

Adrián Regnier Chávez (Mexico City, Mexico)

Sanaz Mazinani (San Francisco, USA/Toronto, Canada)


Review: Wisconsin State Journal
Interview: Tone Madison (Part I)
Interview: Tone Madison (Part II)